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PELTIC 2021 update 6 - 14 October

13 October

The plan for today was to finish yesterday’s last transect then do one more on the French side of the Channel then move back north. We only had 40 minutes left to run on last night’s transect so were pleasantly surprised to be able to record another five Balearic Shearwater. We had a short transit west to pick up the start of the next transect alongside Les Sept Iles, one island (photo 1) is home to about 25000 pairs of Gannet, none there now but their nest sites are still plainly visible.

Photo 1: Gannet colony on Les Sept Iles

The first hour or so of this transect was pretty quiet with a handful of solitary tuna sightings and a steady trickle of Gannet, Razorbill and Guillemot. Things kicked off in the early afternoon though, starting with our second sighting of Risso’s Dolphin, a group of 20 animals picked up three kilometres ahead of us. They eventually drew level with us, though still some 800m away, one animal was very active frequently throwing itself half out the water (photo 2).

Photo 2: Risso's Dolphin

After the excitement of the Risso’s we then had just over an hour of almost constant tuna sightings but for the first time they were in quite large schools of 50-60 animals (as far as we could estimate at any rate) and we logged over 300. A few of the feeding frenzies lasted long enough to attract birds, mainly Gannet but one attracted three Little Gulls (photo 3).

Photo 3: Little Gulls
Photo 4: Common Dolphin

Towards the end of the transect we finally ran onto some Common Dolphin to balance out the tuna a little (photo 4).

We had a short transit to begin our north-bound transect back towards the Devon coast (not that we would reach it by the time it got dark) and the already good conditions got even better with no wind and a millpond sea for the last three hours surveying. Sadly, despite the conditions there was not a huge amount to see and despite being able to see specks like Storm Petrels hundreds of metres away we couldn’t find a single Harbour Porpoise. The highlight came late on in the form of three Basking Shark, though as they weren’t cruising on the surface only the top few centimetres of their fins were showing (photo 5) – hardly the most dramatic of sightings but still the first I’ve seen in five surveys.

Photo 5: Basking Shark (Emma Neave-Webb)

The cloud stayed away and we were treated to another sighting of the ‘green flash’ just as the sun dipped below the horizon (photo 6).

Photo 6: the 'green flash'

14 October

We began a bright – and still calm – day about 80 km south of Start Point, Devon with the end point a couple of kilometres outside of Dartmouth. The highlight of the day (for me) was the appearance of a Dusky Warbler on board. Sadly it was only on board for a few minutes and, frustratingly, evaded having its photo taken. Fortunately it perched on a rail in front of me for 10 seconds so I did at least have a very good view and, having seen photos of this species on social media over the last few days, the cold brown upperparts, dusky buff underparts pale legs and long, bold and straight supercilium looked spot on.

We had our first Common Dolphin sighting about 12 minutes after we started and there was a steady stream of sightings almost right to the end such that we had 25 encounters totalling almost 350 animals. At times the water was so still you couldn’t see it between you and the dolphin (photo 7) and you could marvel at them starting to exhale before they break the surface (photo 8). There were also a few juveniles and calves around too in some of the groups (photo 9).

Common Dolphin photos: 1 Emma Neave-Webb, 2 & 3 Peter Howlett

Highlight of the transect – and indeed the survey so far – came at 10:10. I was watching a group of dolphins when a blow appeared amongst them – Fin Whale (photos 10 & 11)! We were, by this time, just 22 km south of Start Point and never thought we would see a Fin Whale this far east, even though we knew they’d been seen off Falmouth in the last week or so.

Birds were plentiful but of a limited range of species, Gannet were most numerous and of note were another four Balearic Shearwater, single birds dotted along the length of the transect.

Photo 12: Start Point, Devon

The transit to the next transect passed Start Point, always a favourite to see, even more so in today’s weather (photo 12). Tuna continued to be almost ever present and I even managed a jammy shot of one breaching (photo 13), spoilt by the angle of the sun and slight blurring from the engine exhaust.

Photo 13: breaching Blue-finned Tuna

As we headed west to the start point the clouds broke up and we were left staring into the glare again once we had turned south onto the transect. Despite the glare, we were able to add another cetacean species to the trip list shortly after the start, this in the shape of a Minke Whale. Given the calm conditions of the last few days we were a little surprised it had taken this long really, as they aren’t particularly rare in the Channel. We were spared too long staring at the glare as we broke off for a trawl half an hour after starting and by the time we restarted the sun was no longer straight in our faces.

In stark contrast to this morning there was little to be seen on this transect, though what we did see made up for that a little, with another sighting of Risso’s Dolphin. This sighting was of just two animals, one very pale the other dark (photos 14 & 15).

The 15th should see us continuing with another couple of transects on the English side of the Channel.

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